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Becoming Strong on Strengths

165158074_4ca1e6d604_m“Tell me about your team,” I started.
The CEO, who had called me to help create decision-making processes for his senior leadership, said, “I have two stars – Ops and HR. CFO is new, and the jury is out. Sales I promoted too soon… I’m looking right now for a new EVP-Sales.”
“And the other two – Marketing and R&D?”
“Oh, they do fine. I don’t worry about them.”

First yellow light: Is “fine” good enough for these two roles?

“What has you wanting to work on leadership team decision-making right now?” I asked.
“Well, you know we’re growing through acquisition,” said the CEO. “I need to be focused on the acquisition process and with our investors. I can’t be the hub through which all decisions go. The team needs to step up and make some decisions amongst themselves. I’ll give them direction and scope but they need to move things forward with much less from me.”

Fair enough. I’ve seen how excellent leaders create environments – goals, working agreements, guiderails — in which their directs and teams can make smart, timely decisions without kicking them up to the top.

Still, second yellow light, I wondered whether and for how long the CEO was planning to remove himself from their development, mentoring, and feedback, as well as from week-to-week executive decisions.

“What are each of your team members absolutely great at?” I asked. We needed to know if they have enough firepower (analytical, strategic, interpersonal, etc.) distributed around the room that, once harnessed together through good team processes, incentives, and agreements, they can make high-quality executive decisions.

CEO said, “Interesting. Haven’t thought specifically about that. All the ones I’m keeping are pretty good at what they do.” Third yellow light.

Having been educated by Mahan Khalsa and others to “slow down for yellow lights”, I brought up to the CEO the questions on my mind about the standout strengths of each exec and his plans to guide the continued development of individual team members as well as their ability to function effectively as senior team.

Are you, like this CEO, wanting your team to deliver more business value? Here are some guidelines from leadership research:

Aim higher. Have you been satisfied with “good enough” strengths for your team? For yourself? What might be possible for your company if the people who are “pretty good” at what they do become stunning at it?

Focus on the middle performers. That’s a core conclusion of recent research on 200,000 360-degree feedback reports by Jack Zenger, Joe Folkman and Kurt Sandholtz.
“In short, we’ve been putting our leadership development emphasis on the wrong populations. Rather than focus on the top end or the bottom end, our efforts should be directed to the large group in the middle. Building these good leaders’ capability to behave like top-tier leaders can produce results that are far beyond incremental.”

Dial up their strengths. Continuing from Zenger “In our research, ‘lack of weaknesses’ was not the distinguishing feature of the best leaders. Instead, they possessed a few profound strengths.”

Of course, we know from decades of research that “fatal flaws” can derail your leadership path. What we also know, and shown here again, is the power of impressive strengths to drive leadership success, regardless of soft spots in the rest of your profile.

If you’re new to thinking about strengths-based leadership, Gallup’s StrengthsFinder site offers useful resources.

Craft roles. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen says “ if I can complement people’s strengths by surrounding them with people who can complement their areas of weakness, that’s probably a better recipe for success than trying to say, ‘O.K., you need to change.'”

If you were to guess what % of their day your team members spent doing what they’re brilliant at, would that even rise above 50%? Clients I ask typically estimate 25-40%, and they think that’s not good enough. What’s possible? Could you imagine, with redesigned roles and adequate support, your people spending 80% of their day using their strengths? What business value might that create?

Do YOUR job. Once direction is set, your fundamental job as a leader is a hunter, curator, and builder of talent. While you can gain support in this from executive coaches and other development professionals, you cannot delegate away this core responsibility. If you’ve yet to master how to guide team members to go “from good to great”, it’s time to look at how to deploy your own strengths to deliver on this critical opportunity. If helping strong but as-yet-unexceptional performers identify, deepen, and apply their strengths is uninteresting to you, it’s time to question leadership as your own path.

My challenge to this CEO was to use the current acquisition as a strength-building opportunity for a couple of his team members, freeing up some of his attention to focus on developing more strengths on his team and on aligning their roles accordingly.

What difference would it make to your business if all your team members were intensively applying and developing their distinctive strengths?

– My thanks to Katherine Hirsh for research sources.
– I have made small changes to the conversation above to protect client confidentiality.
– I have no affiliation with Gallup, the Zenger study or other resources referenced.

About the author

Pam Fox Rollin Pam Fox Rollin is a valued thought-partner to corporate and NGO leaders navigating their organizations through complex change. Her work as an Executive Coach and Speaker draws on 20 years experience, including strategy consulting (Bain, Accenture), management education (Guest Fellow, Stanford GSB), leadership research, and community leadership. You can also find Pam on her Twitter page and company IdeaShape Coaching & Consulting

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Posted in General Leadership, Opinion.

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